The years 1975 to 1999 saw 114 emergency declarations. The following ten years saw 173, costing a total of $1.6 billion from the federal disaster relief fund. As Hurricane Sandy begins to work her destructive magic on the east coast, economists are projecting estimated costs at between $10 billion and $20 billion. It’s no secret that disasters are becoming more frequent and more costly.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, in a 2011 CNN debate, when asked if the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) should be shut down, advocated for the elimination of FEMA, either privatizing its powers and responsibilities, or giving them over to the states.
“Absolutely,” he said in reply. “Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction. And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better. Instead of thinking, in the federal budget, what we should cut, we should ask the opposite question, what should we keep?”
When CNN debate moderator John King asked him if that included cutting disaster relief, Romney said, “We cannot — we cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids. It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids, knowing full well that we’ll all be dead and gone before it’s paid off. It makes no sense at all.”
He asserted it would be even better to send any and all responsibilities of the federal government “to the private sector,” disaster response included.
Monday morning, the Huffington Post gave the Romney campaign the opportunity to again address the issue, and was told that he meant what he said.
“Gov. Romney wants to ensure states, who are the first responders and are in the best position to aid impacted individuals and communities, have the resources and assistance they need to cope with natural disasters.”
However, the Governor has released no details on how a Romney administration without a Federal Emergency Management Agency would accomplish that.
Romney is right in that the cost of disaster response and recovery (“relief” is not the proper term) has been skyrocketing out of control for decades. There was a brief and successful attempt to turn that tide during the nineties, when FEMA Director James Lee Witt implemented Project Impact. Witt saw then what Romney sees now; that the cost of disaster response and recovery was getting out of control. But as the first FEMA director to go into the position with emergency management experience, Witt knew that the other two phases of emergency management (mitigation and preparedness) were the keys to saving lives and dollars.
So Project Impact was born, a federal program that gave communities seed money to develop public/private partnerships to design and create mitigation measures that would make a community disaster resistant. An example of a mitigation measure would be hurricane clips or tie-downs on roofs. A traditionally installed roof is at risk of ripping from the home in relatively minor tornadoes, such as an F-1 or F-2. If the roof blows off, the rest of the home is immediately vulnerable to the worst the storm has to offer, and may incur tremendous damage and risk to life. However, with the installation of clips, the roof’s hold onto the house is stronger, requiring stronger winds to tear it off. The tornado has not been diverted; it still strikes the home. But the utilization of clips or tie-downs has mitigated against the potential damage that could have happened. When communities partnered with the private sector to become disaster-resistant, the results were highly encouraging.
In Oklahoma, Tulsa Project Impact partnered with the Greater Tulsa Homebuilders Association and helped publicize the need for safe rooms in Oklahoma, where basements are not practical, due to water table levels and soil consistency. In 1999, the nation’s first housing development with a safe room in every home was built. Legacy Park offered a safe room to every homeowner when developing the plans for their new home, and every homeowner except one included a safe room in their homes. This was followed by the first large-scale effort to build thousands of safe rooms through a state rebate program. The success of the program was a direct result of the involvement and strong support of the state of Oklahoma and the public/private partnership that included industry, business, government, and the private sector.
Studies back then said that for every $1 spent on mitigation, $4 was saved in response and recovery costs.
Fast forward thirteen years. At a House hearing in July, 2012 before the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management, the President and CEO for the Institute of Business and Home Safety, Julie Rochman testified in support of legislation to strengthen the nation’s buildings. The purpose of the hearing was to “examine how building codes and mitigation efforts minimize costs associated with disasters and save lives.”
How much money could mitigation efforts save?
“A 2007 analysis by the Congressional Budget Office regarding the reduction in federal disaster assistance as a result of mitigation efforts found that nearly $500 million in mitigation projects funded from 2004 through mid-2007 through pre-disaster grants reduced future losses by $1.6 billion for an overall ratio of 3:1.”
And in a more recent study commissioned by the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies (NAMIC) examining the impact of the Building Code Incentive Act and states which have adopted and enforced statewide building codes (the study focused on hurricane and wind damages), “findings show $11 billion could have been saved if states had begun adopting such codes in 1988. Since 1988, $125 billion in FEMA grant funds have been issued related to natural disasters.” It goes on to say, “If buildings exposed to these disasters had been built to model codes, losses could have been reduced by nearly 20 percent, or $13 billion.”
So whatever happened to Project Impact? The successful mitigation program that had positive results in all fifty states was eliminated from the first Bush budget.
Director of Tulsa Partners, and former Tulsa Project Impact Assistant Director Tim Lovell, responds to Gov. Romney’s recommendation to cut FEMA. “In recommending the elimination of FEMA, and assigning its duties to the states and/or the private sector, Romney illustrates a remarkable lack of understanding of how emergency management works.” He goes on to say that presidential disaster declarations are only made after the local and state levels have depleted their resources, and that FEMA does not give disaster declarations each time they are requested. The state requesting them must comply with FEMA standards for federal public and individual assistance, and if those standards are not met, declaration requests are denied.
How would a world with no FEMA impact Tulsa? “It would depend on how the role was reassigned,” Lovell said. “But there will always be a need for federal involvement in some of our disasters. There needs to be a federal response role, a role of coordinating the large scale disasters that impact multiple jurisdictions. We have had a number of disasters over the years that have required a federal response that local and state governments couldn’t handle.”
However, Romney is not wrong that the department is bleeding money. Proponents of eliminating FEMA point out that for what the agency pays employees very well, there are a number of volunteers who do the same work for free.
Disaster Medical Assistance Teams (DMATs), for example, are groups of professional medical personnel—doctors and nurses supported by a logistical and administrative staff—who deploy to disasters and provide medical care. The staff who make up these teams are paid a substantial hourly rate to provide rapid response medical care. Their volunteer counterpart, Medical Reserve Corps teams, are made up of professional medical personnel who volunteer their time for a variety of local public health initiatives, and who are trained to be deployed in time of emergency to do the same work DMATs do.
Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs) are local teams of volunteers who have been trained to become their neighborhood’s first responders when the size of the disaster has stretched thin the ability of local first responders.
Proponents also say there are Emergency Management Assistance Compacts (EMACs) between states; mutual aid compacts that allow for sharing of resources during a disaster provide an alternative to turning to the federal government for disaster assistance.
So states can depend on volunteers, and on each other in times of trouble. Funding for training of volunteers, however, is uncertain, and EMACs can be highly beneficial during smaller emergencies, but can they be depended on during a Hurricane Sandy that affects 14 states and the District of Columbia? Sometimes the states you depend on are in as much trouble as your own.
And how would the federal Public Assistance and Individual Assistance programs be replaced? These programs provide the recovery funding to allow a community to rebuild its infrastructure and critical facilities such as schools and hospitals, and for homeowners without insurance, such as many of the low income families affected by the Oklahoma wildfires, to rebuild their homes. A National Catastrophe Fund, such as that adopted by the State of Florida, would help spread risk across state lines, stockpile capital and keep insurance affordable. Member states would pool resources to provide inexpensive reinsurance to the private companies selling policies in their states, with requirements that the savings be passed on to consumers, resulting in lower insurance premiums, and creating a resource of cash and ready bonding authority for after a disaster. It’s an idea that has been kicked around for years, has received broad bipartisan support, and is long overdue.
Romney was right about two things: we need to cut the costs of disaster response and recovery; and we need to get the private sector involved. Eliminating the current agency altogether would result in a myriad of unintended consequences, just as taking the department out of the President’s Cabinet and inserting it deep into the heart of the new and fledgling Department of Homeland Security resulted in duplication of efforts, lack of communication and overall confusion.
But a significant FEMA size-down could be effective on several levels. Continued support of the public/private partnerships that were so effective during the Clinton Administration in helping communities become disaster resistant would continue to save money to the tune of billions of dollars, while training Community Emergency Response Teams and Medical Reserve Corps teams, and entering into mutual aid agreements with surrounding communities and states for help would help local and state governments become more self-sufficient, while establishing a National Catastrophe Fund would provide a much-needed backstop.
Elimination of an entire department that has helped so many people for so many years isn’t necessary. But some kind of change is necessary, even urgently so; hopefully, people of good will and reason on both sides of the aisle can come together to make the necessary adjustments before it is too late.
For more information about the Institute of Business and Home Safety, visit http://disastersafety.org. To learn more about a National Catastrophe Fund, visit http://www.protectingamerica.org. For an example of a disaster-resistant home, see the State Farm Disaster Survival House; http://www.fema.gov/mitigationbp/bestPracticeDetailPDF.do?mitssId=2965 and http://www.statefarm.com/_pdf/list.pdf.